Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Honest Lent: Abraham's Slaves

Fighting between Abraham's and Lot's workers. Image source.
For Honest Lent, let's read Genesis 12:1-9.

This is "The Call of Abram." God tells him to go to a new land, and that God will bless him. So he goes. With "his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran."



See this is something that bothered me, back when I was a little kid and the adults were so proud of me for reading the bible on my own. Abraham had a bunch of servants, and the bible doesn't talk about those servants like they're people, but as if they are property.

Here is what the bible says about Abraham's servants:
  • Genesis 12:5. Abram goes to the land God showed him, along with "all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran."
  • Genesis 12:16. Abram goes to Egypt and says Sarai is his sister. Pharaoh then took her and "treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels."
  • Genesis 13. Abram and Lot separate because both of them have such huge groups of livestock and herders, the land can't support them both.
  • Genesis 14:14. When Lot gets captured, Abram leads "the 318 trained men born in his household" to fight and rescue him.
  • Genesis 15:3. God promises Abram will have many descendents, but Abram says, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
  • Genesis 16. Abram and Sarai decide that Abram is going to impregnate Sarai's servant Hagar. Hagar doesn't seem to have been given a choice in this.
  • Genesis 17. God again promises that Abram will have tons and tons of descendents, and he changes his name to Abraham. Also, God says all males in Abraham's household must be circumcised. Including the servants. "And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him."
  • Genesis 18:7 mentions that a servant prepared food for "the three visitors."
  • Genesis 20. Abraham tries that whole "Sarah is my sister" thing again, and king Abimelek took her (notice that Sarah's consent seems to not exist?). When Abimelek finds out that actually Sarah is married and God is [illogically] upset with him about this, he freaks out and gives Abraham a ton of gifts so he won't get in trouble. "Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him."
  • Genesis 22:3. Two servants came along when Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac.
  • Genesis 24. Abraham sends a servant to go find a wife for Isaac. (Even though the servant is the main character of this chapter, he isn't given a name.) In verse 35 he says, "The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys."
Servants appear again and again in the background of Abraham's story, often mentioned in lists of property to impress us with how rich Abraham was. It struck me as very strange, when I was a little kid- in Sunday School we were taught that we should be like Abraham; Abraham was the hero, he trusted God, God gave him so many blessings. But I wondered, what about the servants? Where was their opportunity to trust God and be rewarded with riches? Why didn't they have a chance at being a role model for little kids in Sunday School?

It didn't make sense for the church to tell us "be like Abraham" when the majority of the people in Abraham's story never even had an opportunity to "be like Abraham."

They're just there, in the background, and nobody ever asks about their faith or whether God cared about them. (Or what their reaction was when Abraham announced "today all the men are getting circumcised!")

You could give this explanation: Maybe Abraham was the most godly, maybe the people who had to serve him as slaves wouldn't have trusted God like Abraham did if given the chance, so it's actually not unfair that the story isn't about them. Whoa, hold up there, that is some very dangerous ground you're on. Because if you believe "maybe people in bible times were trapped in lives of servitude because they weren't the sort of people who would have obeyed God and been role models for Sunday school kids anyway" then it's also reasonable to believe "maybe people living in poverty now are morally inferior and they deserve it." And that can serve as an excuse for all kinds of immorality.

I wish we could have acknowledged this injustice in Sunday School, in bible study groups, in evangelical culture in general- I wish someone would have pointed out how it's kind of messed-up the way the bible talks about Abraham's servants (slaves?) as if they're not people. But of course that's not an option. Good Christians have to force themselves to believe that everything in the bible is right and good (with caveats about how just because the bible says something happened doesn't mean it's endorsing that). In that culture, you can't point out, "Hey, isn't it weird that servants are being listed right along with cattle and donkeys, as if they're nothing more than property that symbolizes God's blessing to Abraham? And it's written like readers are supposed to be impressed by how rich Abraham was and how he owned so many people? Isn't that kind of ... immoral?"

You can't. You're not allowed to believe that the biblical writers endorsed anything that was immoral. And so you train yourself not to notice, when people- human beings created in the image of God- are referred to as property that can be bought and sold, forced into pregnancy, forced into circumcision. Just as the biblical writer did, you ignore the servants' agency and choices and see them as nothing more than symbols of Abraham's obedience to God and reward. It's all about Abraham. You imagine yourself as Abraham, or maybe Sarah- as if there is no one else in the story.

Reading the bible- really reading the whole bible- while believing that everything it teaches is by definition right and good requires you to silence your brain and your conscience. It trains you to read but not to notice. To internalize these mentions of immorality, as if they're not immoral at all, because you're can't allow yourself to question them.

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